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Obama and Vietnam Communist Party chief talk human rights, religious freedom

Twenty years after normalizing diplomatic ties with its one-time foe, the US is eager to improve relations with Vietnam.

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President Obama listens to remarks to reporters by Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong after their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on Tuesday, July 7, 2015.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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President Obama said Tuesday that despite differences between the United States and Vietnam over "political philosophy," the two countries are deepening cooperation on health, climate and other issues.

Obama spoke following an Oval Office meeting with Nguyen Phu Trong, the head of Vietnam's Communist Party. Trong is the de facto leader of Vietnam despite holding no official government post.

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Twenty years after normalizing diplomatic ties with its one-time foe, the U.S. is eager to improve relations with Vietnam. Officials see Vietnam as a country that could be a linchpin in Obama's Asia policy. As a front-line country nervous about Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, Vietnam would also welcome the U.S. taking a tough line against Beijing.

Even as Obama and Trong emphasized areas of cooperation, the U.S. president said they spoke candidly about human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam.

Trong said he extended an invitation for Obama to visit Vietnam and the president had accepted. While Obama noted the invitation, he made no specific commitments to travel to Vietnam during his presidency.

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both visited Vietnam after diplomatic ties were established.

Obama is the first post-Vietnam War president who didn't come of age during that culturally searing conflict. The war remains a defining event in the lives of two of the nation's leading foreign policy voices — Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain, Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Following the White House meeting, Vice President Joe Biden hosted Trong for a lunch at the State Department.